Jean Decety

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Jean Decety
Dr. Jean Decety - University of Cape Town, South Africa, February 2012.jpg
Born 1960
Residence Chicago, United States
Nationality French and American
Fields Cognitive neuroscience, Developmental neuroscience, Social neuroscience
Institutions University of Chicago (Professor)
Alma mater Université Claude Bernard, Lyon; France
Notable students Sarah-Jayne Blakemore[1]
Known for

Jean Decety is an American and French neuroscientist specializing in developmental neuroscience, affective neuroscience, and social neuroscience. His research focuses on the neurobiological mechanisms underpinning social cognition, particularly emotion, empathy, moral reasoning, altruism, pro-social behavior, and more generally interpersonal processes. He is Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago.[2]


Jean Decety obtained three advanced Master degrees in 1985 (neuroscience), in 1986 (cognitive psychology), and in 1987 (biological and medical engineering science) and was awarded a Ph.D. in 1989 (neurobiology) from the Université Claude Bernard. After receiving his doctorate, he worked as a post-doctoral fellow at the Karolinska Hospital (Sweden) in the Departments of Neurophysiology and Neuroradiology. He then joined the National Institute for Medical Research (INSERM) in Lyon (France) until 2001.

Decety is currently professor at the University of Chicago and the College, with appointments in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience. He is the Director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, and the Child NeuroSuite, and the co-director of the Brain Research Imaging Center at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Decety is a member of the Committee on Computational Neuroscience and the Center for Integrative Neuroscience and Neuroengineering.

Decety has two sons, Nathan and Glenn Ariel.

Editorial activities[edit]

Decety served as the editor-in-chief of the journal Social Neuroscience between 2006 and 2012, and he is on the editorial boards of Development and Psychopathology, The Scientific World Journal, Frontiers in Emotion Science, and Neuropsychologia. With his colleague John Cacioppo, Decety played an instrumental role in the creation of the Society for Social Neuroscience in 2010.

Early research on the cognitive neuroscience of action representation[edit]

During his Ph.D. training and onwards, Decety combined behavioral, physiological, and functional neuroimaging measures to investigate the cognitive and neural mechanisms involved in mental simulation of action, also known as "mental practice of action" or motor imagery, a technique used by athletes to rehearse and improve their performance. A series of experiments demonstrated that mental simulation can activate heart and respiration control mechanisms almost to the same extent as actual behavior.[3] Imagining an action or actually performing that action share similar neural circuits, including the premotor cortex, supplementary motor area, cerebellum, parietal cortex, and basal ganglia,[4] and these circuits are also activated when one observes, imitates or imagines actions performed by other individuals.[5][6] These findings support the common coding theory between perception and action put forward by Roger Sperry and more recently by German psychologist Wolfgang Prinz. The core assumption of this theory is that actions are coded in terms of the perceivable effects (i.e., the distal perceptual events) they should generate.[7] Performing a movement leaves behind a bidirectional association between the motor pattern it has generated by and the sensory effects that it produces. Such an association can then be used backwards to retrieve a movement by anticipating its effects.[8] Decety and colleagues proposed that this perception–action coupling mechanism offers an interesting foundation for intersubjectivity and social understanding because it provides a functional bridge between first-person information and third-person information, grounded on self-other equivalence,[9][10] which allows analogical reasoning, and offers a possible, yet partial, route to understanding others.[11][1]

Current research on developmental social neuroscience[edit]

Later research includes the neurobiological investigation of empathy, personal distress, the sense of agency, perspective taking, emotional regulation, and moral reasoning in healthy individuals, including physicians and medical students, as well as people with socioemotional disorders.[12] In a recent series of functional MRI and magnetoencephalographic studies, Decety and his students have shown that when children or adults watch other people in pain, the neural circuits underpinning the processing of first-hand experience of pain are activated in the observer.[13] This basic somatic sensorimotor resonance plays a critical role in the primitive building block of empathy and moral reasoning that relies on the sharing of others' distress. Such results are important, because appreciating the brain’s role in responding to the pain of others can help us understand children who exhibit social cognitive disorders (e.g., antisocial personality disorder and conduct disorder) and are often deficient in experiencing empathic concern, or guilt. Current research in Decety's laboratory examines the neurobiological mechanisms that underpin the dysfunction of empathy psychopaths.[14][15]

New area of Decety's research investigates the development of social evaluations, moral reasoning, empathy, empathic concern and altruism from early childhood to late adolescence by probing the cognitive and neural underpinnings and delimiting the impact of individual dispositions and social context. This area of investigation combines neuroscience methods such as functional MRI, diffusion tensor imaging, MRI and high-density electroencephalography with developmental science.[16][17][18]

Contribution to the study of empathy, prosocial behavior and morality[edit]

For Decety, empathy is not specific to humans. There is strong evidence that empathy has deep evolutionary, biochemical, and neurological underpinnings. He argues that even the most advanced forms of empathy in humans are built on more basic forms and remain connected to core mechanisms associated with affective communication, social attachment, and parental care.[19] Core neural circuits that are involved in empathy and caring, include the brainstem, the amygdala, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, insula, and orbitofrontal cortex.[20]

The perception of other people in pain and distress has revealed to be of particular importance for Decety's investigations of the neurological mechanisms underlying empathy and prosocial behavior.[21] Pain is a window through which one can obtain a detailed view of the cognitive and neurophysiological mechanism underlying the experiences of empathy and sympathy. The perception of pain in others constitutes an ecologically valid way to investigate the mechanisms underpinning the experience of empathy for two main reasons: first, everybody knows what is pain – it is a common and universal experience – and understands what are its physical and psychological manifestations; second, we have good knowledge about the neurophysiological pathways and brain areas that are involved in processing nociceptive information which include the somatosensory cortex, the supplementary motor area, the anterior cingulate cortex, the insula, the periaqueductal gray, and thalamus.[22]

A number of neuroimaging functional MRI and magnetoencephalography studies demonstrated that attending to others in pain is associated with an aversive response in the observer, underpinned by the neural circuits involved in somatosensory resonance and processing nociceptive information.[23][24][25][26][27] This sharing allows mapping the perceived affective cues of others onto the behaviors and experiences of the self. Decety argued that depending on the extent of the overlap in the pain matrix, and complex interactions with personal dispositions, motivation, contextual information, and self-regulation, it can lead to personal distress (i.e., self-centered motivation) or to empathic concern (i.e., an other-oriented response). This distinction draws on the work of social psychologist Daniel Batson with whom Decety collaborated. Recently, he has teamed up with University of Chicago neurobiologist Peggy Mason to develop an animal model of empathy and pro-social behavior.[28]

In an online article, published in Psychological Science in 2013, Decety and Kang Lee from the University of Toronto were co-leaders of a study they conducted with two researchers from Liaoning Normal University, in China. The study found that after a natural disaster, an earthquake in the Sichuan province in China, which measured 8.0 on the Richter scale, that killed some 87,000 people, including many children, older 9-year-old children (with improved neural circuitry in the prefrontal cortex, including areas involved in social emotions like empathy) tended to be more altruistic, while the neurologically more immature 6-year-old participants generally became more selfish. Three years later, the levels of altruism went back to their pre-earthquake levels.[29]

Edited books[edit]

  • Empathy - from Bench to Bedside (2012). J. Decety (Ed.). Cambridge: MIT Press, Cambridge.
  • The Oxford Handbook of Social Neuroscience (2011). J. Decety and J.T. Cacioppo (Eds.). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • The Social Neuroscience of Empathy (2009). J. Decety and W. Ickes (Eds.). Cambridge: MIT Press, Cambridge.
  • Interpersonal Sensitivity: Entering Others' Worlds (2007). J. Decety and C.D. Batson (Eds.). Hove: Psychology Press.


  1. ^ a b Blakemore, S.; Decety, J. (2001). "REVIEW: From the perception of action to the understanding of intention". Nature Reviews Neuroscience 2 (8): 561–567. doi:10.1038/35086023. 
  2. ^ List of publications from Google Scholar
  3. ^ Decety, J; Jeannerod, M; Durozard, D; Baverel, G (1993). "Central activation of autonomic effectors during mental simulation of motor actions in man". The Journal of physiology 461: 549–63. PMC 1175272. PMID 8102402. 
  4. ^ Decety, J; Perani, D; Jeannerod, M; Bettinardi, V; Tadary, B; Woods, R; Mazziotta, J. C.; Fazio, F (1994). "Mapping motor representations with positron emission tomography". Nature 371 (6498): 600–2. doi:10.1038/371600a0. PMID 7935791. 
  5. ^ Decety, J; Grèzes, J; Costes, N; Perani, D; Jeannerod, M; Procyk, E; Grassi, F; Fazio, F (1997). "Brain activity during observation of actions. Influence of action content and subject's strategy". Brain : a journal of neurology 120 (10): 1763–77. doi:10.1093/brain/120.10.1763. PMID 9365369. 
  6. ^ Ruby, P; Decety, J (2001). "Effect of subjective perspective taking during simulation of action: A PET investigation of agency". Nature Neuroscience 4 (5): 546–50. doi:10.1038/87510 (inactive 2014-08-06). PMID 11319565. 
  7. ^ Hommel, B., Müsseler, Aschersleben, G. and Prinz, W. (2001). The theory of event coding (TEC): A framework for perception and action planning. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24, 849-937.
  8. ^ Prinz, W. (2003). Experimental approaches to action. In J. Roessler & N. Eilan (Eds.). Agency and Self-awareness (pp. 175-187). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  9. ^ Decety, J; Sommerville, J. A. (2003). "Shared representations between self and other: A social cognitive neuroscience view". Trends in cognitive sciences 7 (12): 527–33. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2003.10.004. PMID 14643368. 
  10. ^ Jackson, P. L.; Decety, J (2004). "Motor cognition: A new paradigm to study self-other interactions". Current Opinion in Neurobiology 14 (2): 259–63. doi:10.1016/j.conb.2004.01.020. PMID 15082334. 
  11. ^ Sommerville, J. A., & Decety, J. (2006). Weaving the fabric of social interaction: Articulating developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience in the domain of motor cognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 13, 179-200.
  12. ^ Decety, J., & Moriguchi, Y. (2007). The empathic brain and its dysfunction in psychiatric populations: implications for intervention across different clinical conditions. BioPsychoSocial Medicine, 1, 22-65.
  13. ^ Decety, J. et al. (2008). "Who caused the pain? A functional MRI investigation of empathy and intentionality in children." Neuropsychologia, 46, 2607-2614.
  14. ^ Decety, J., Chen, C., Harenski, C. L., & Kiehl, K. A. (2013). An fMRI study of affective perspective taking in individuals with psychopathy: imagining another in pain does not evoke empathy. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7:489.
  15. ^ Decety, J., Michalska, K.J., Akitsuki, Y., & Lahey, B. (2009). Atypical empathic responses in adolescents with aggressive conduct disorder: a functional MRI investigation. Biological Psychology, 80, 203-211.
  16. ^ Decety, J., & Michalska, K.J. (2010). Neurodevelopmental changes in the circuits underlying empathy and sympathy from childhood to adulthood. Developmental Science, 13, 886-899.
  17. ^ Decety, J., Michalska, K. J., & Kinzler, K. D. (2012). The contribution of emotion and cognition to moral sensitivity: A neurodevelopmental study. Cerebral Cortex, 22, 209-220.
  18. ^ Decety, J., & Cacioppo, S. (2012). The speed of morality: A high-density electrical neuroimaging study. Journal of Neurophysiology, 108, 3068–3072.
  19. ^ Decety, J. (2011). The neuroevolution of empathy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1231, 35-45.
  20. ^ Decety, J., Norman, G. J., Berntson, G. G., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2012). A neurobehavioral evolutionary perspective on the mechanisms underlying empathy. Progress in Neurobiology, 98, 38-48.
  21. ^ Decety, J (2009). "Empathy, sympathy and the perception of pain". Pain 145 (3): 365–6. doi:10.1016/j.pain.2009.08.006. PMID 19716658. 
  22. ^ Decety, J. (2007). A social cognitive neuroscience model of human empathy. In E. Harmon-Jones & P. Winkielman (Eds.), Social Neuroscience: Integrating Biological and Psychological Explanations of Social Behavior (pp. 246-270). New York: Guilford Publications.
  23. ^ Cheng, Y., Lin, C., Liu, H.L., Hsu, Y., Lim, K., Hung, D., & Decety, J. (2007). Expertise modulates the perception of pain in others. Current Biology, 17, 1708-1713.
  24. ^ Jackson, P.L., Brunet, E., Meltzoff, A.N., & Decety, J. (2006). Empathy examined through the neural mechanisms involved in imagining how I feel versus how you feel pain: An event-related fMRI study. Neuropsychologia, 44, 752-61.
  25. ^ Cheng, Y., Yang, C.Y., Lin, C.P., Lee, P.R., & Decety, J. (2008). The perception of pain in others suppresses somatosensory oscillations: a magnetoencephalography study. NeuroImage, 40, 1833-1840.
  26. ^ Jackson, P. L.; Meltzoff, A. N.; Decety, J (2005). "How do we perceive the pain of others? A window into the neural processes involved in empathy". NeuroImage 24 (3): 771–9. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2004.09.006. PMID 15652312. 
  27. ^ Lamm, C., Nusbaum, H.C., Meltzoff, A.N., & Decety, J. (2007). What are you feeling? Using functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess the modulation of sensory and affective responses during empathy for pain. PLoS ONE, 12, e1292.
  28. ^ Ben-Ami Bartal, I; Decety, J; Mason, P (2011). "Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats". Science 334 (6061): 1427–30. doi:10.1126/science.1210789. PMC 3760221. PMID 22158823. 
  29. ^

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